Simply Sophy: The Healing Power of Animals
Sixteen years ago I prayed to God to bring me a Relationship, the companion of my heart. I was lonely. I wanted a man to share my life. I thought a man would heal the ache in my soul. Instead I got a horse.
A horse? I didn’t want a horse, but once having ridden this young Arab mare (only three years old, just a baby), I was captivated. I’d never met a horse so smart. Or so courageous. One day we were riding with a group out on the spacious New Mexico mesa under that huge Western sky, when we came to the carcass of a cow. The older horses shied, balked, twisted, lunged, refusing to walk past the carrion smell. It was my little girl, Spring, who at my urging stepped daintily past the corpse, leading the others in her wake.
I won’t go into my indecision about buying her. But one morning I woke from sleep with a sudden clear “knowing” that Spring was going to be sold and moved to Portland, Oregon— that I would never see her again. I telephoned the stable in New Mexico. “If Spring is ever for sale,” I said, “please let me know.”
“That’s strange,” said Katherine, the stable owner. “Only yesterday her owner called to tell me she’s moving to Portland, and she’s putting Spring up for sale.”
When God is in charge, there’s nothing you cannot do,. I put an option on the horse, and flew to New Mexico for a month to make a decision. But I’d already made up my mind. It made no sense for me to own a horse. I lived on the East Coast, with a vacation cabin in New Mexico. I’d always be in another state, far from my horse. And horses are expensive! How could I afford a horse?
But all that month, every time I sensibly decided to decline, I’d feel that little tap on my shoulder that I think of as the voice of angels: “Try again.”
There is a character in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, who “talks only of his horse.” That’s me. (Actually that’s every horse owner that I know.)
I won’t bore you with her beauty, the way she lifts her head or tail when she steps out in her long walk, the way she moves into the bit, or she lowers her head to make it easier for me to latch her bridle, or thrusts her head into her halter; and if she could, I think she’d probably buckle the snaps.
Moreover, she loves me. Non-horse people don’t think that horses love. Once I was brushing her beautiful hind quarters when she swished her long tail—and held it by muscular force draped over me. I was veiled in her embrace. After three or four seconds, she relaxed, letting her tail fall free. I was shocked. That takes effort. She deliberately held her tail over me, in a kind of touch.
We have been together now for 15 years. I brought her East. We have fox-hunted, done dressage, won ribbons in horse shows, but our favorite is jumping and trail-riding, and we trust each other enough that she will even go out alone on trails we’ve never seen before. I say this because some horses I know will hardly leave sight of their stable, they get so nervous all alone.
Now with the pandemic, she has become even more significant. My sister has a lap dog. One child has budgies. I have a horse. Masked and isolated in lock down, I went for months without touching another human or being kissed or hugged. I was avoided by grandchildren and daughters and friends.
At the end of four months, I felt myself going bonkers. Humans are pack animals. We are supposed to touch, relate, not live in sequestration, like a prisoner in solitary. Few can live like hermits or a yogi in a cave. (And this has given me new rage and indignation at how we throw prisoners into solitary confinement, letting them out once a week to walk outside one hour: some confined to solitary for months and years! Cruel and unusual punishment: that’s torture.)
Intellectually, I knew this sequestration was enforced for my safety, but my Unconscious mind had other ideas: that my children, grandchildren and friends wanted nothing to do with me— that I’m old, worthless, useless, unwanted, unloved. It was a message I fought and often lost. Still, I had my horse.
Every day I could drive to the stable and brush my horse, or give her a carrot or apple. Even if we didn’t ride, I could run my hands down the smooth muscles of her beautiful neck, rub her ears, kiss her soft muzzle, breathe into her nose, so that we exchanged breath in an intimacy as deep and calming as sleeping with a lover. She would nuzzle my neck, gazing at me with her enormous brown eyes. The eye of a horse is the largest of any land mammal, exceeded only by that of an ostrich, whale, or seal. A horse is so sensitive that, even through layers of a heavy leather saddle, it can feel the blood pulsing in your thigh. She knows, therefore, when you are excited, angry, frightened, irritable, and likewise when you are quiet and calm. Being flight animals, a horse responds to your emotions as she would in the herd, so that she jiggles or jumps in appropriate fear, according to your emotions, or else she walks calmly along, trusting you even in danger (a cow, for example, or smelly pig or goat, if she’s never seen one). On the other hand, you learn to trust your horse as well. She snatches the scent of bear long before you, and tells you with startled hooves and ears of peril. Believe her. She knows more than you.
Sometimes I would go to the stable anxious and upset, but in only a few minutes of brushing her, I would grow calm under the influence of her love. I think I could feel her sending out waves of loving tranquility.
Lockdown is easing now. Restaurants are carefully opening outdoors. People still wear masks, stand apart, careful not to touch. My grandchildren still will not come near me, fearful of infecting me. But when I go to the stable, my horse out in her pasture pricks her ears and lifts her head at hearing my car. She steps out in her loose long walk, approaching me, and she lowers her head for her halter. Then we walk along together, companionably, to the stable, where she will be brushed and touched and massaged and then ridden, she and I out for an adventure together. I will feel her muscles moving under me in a walk or canter. I come home, take a hot shower, and all is well with the world.
I had wanted a man. I got a horse.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing…
© Sophy Burnham 2020.